A thief stole gifts meant for thousands of kids. Then this couple raised $45,000 to save Christmas

Lucas and Maddie Burnley ran a fundraiser and purchased $45,000 worth of Christmas gifts to replace toys stolen from a church in Bridgeport, CT

Posted: Dec 17, 2018 1:14 PM


For the past two months, the community in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has been stockpiling toys, preparing to give local children in need the gift of Christmas.

Eric Torres, a pastor at Greater Bridgeport Christian Fellowship, was leading volunteers working long, cold, New England days collecting toy donations from around town and organizing them in six storage pods outside the church.

"Our fingers were numb. Our lips were chapped," Torres told CNN.

"More than 6,000 children across 1,400 families had registered to receive toys," he said.

But then thieves broke into four of those storage pods, stealing about 1,000 toys, dealing a blow to their painstaking work.

A 'manic' 24-hour fundraiser

Meanwhile, Lucas Burnley, a 36-year-old knife maker from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was talking to his mother-in-law. She told him about the church robbery in Bridgeport, more than 200 miles away.

Burnley's just a regular guy. "I own a really, really small business and just want to feed my family," he said. But he has a big heart and has long had an extra helping of Christmas spirit.

For the past six years, Burnley and his wife, Maddie, have raffled off their handcrafted wares to help fund Christmas gifts for kids, including the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program. The first year they raised $2,500. Their initiative snowballed annually among knife connoisseurs, taking in $52,000 last year.

Burnley thought it couldn't get much bigger, but he said people started contacting him saying they were saving all year for the next raffle.

Ticket sales opened December 4, and after closing 24 hours later, the numbers racked up to nearly double last year's total: a whopping $92,000. Then the shopping spree began. "When I'm buying toys, I don't feel like Santa, I feel like a kid," he said.

The Burnleys gave tens of thousands of dollars in toys to Cape Cod's annual "Stuff-a-Bus" initiative, and then devoted $45,000 in toys to the faraway church Maddie's mother had mentioned. All told, organizing the raffle, collecting the money, and buying and distributing the presents occupied two weeks of full-time work. Rather than knives, the Burnleys' workshop was overflowing with toys.

Lacking a sleigh, they packed up a truck Tuesday night and planned to deliver the toys to the church themselves.

A faith larger than fear

Even as the Burnleys were en route, Torres, the Connecticut pastor, feared disappointing the thousands of kids whose Christmas hopes were resting on his shoulders. Though he knew to expect the Burnleys' donation, he had no idea how big it was going to be. He was going to have to rely on faith.

And the pastor's faith paid off in unlikely forms. After church services, three tough-looking young men approached him, asking for a meeting. They were members of the Latin Kings gang, and wanted to help get the gifts to the kids.

The gang members were among the volunteers with Torres as the Burnleys pulled in with their truck full of goodies after a three-and-a-half hour journey. Lucas Burnley was a stranger, but Torres said embracing him as he jumped out of the truck was like reuniting with a friend after a long absence. "It was like a hug felt 'round the world," he said.

Unloading the boxes, Lucas was impressed with the faith of those around him: "Someone said, 'We don't know how, but the Lord will provide.'" Though Lucas isn't religious, Torres noted how the Burnleys' act of selflessness lifted their own spirits, as well.

"You could just feel the joy coming out of them," Torres said.

Greater Bridgeport Christian Fellowship is set to begin distributing the toys to families Saturday and again the Saturday before Christmas.

"Tragedy can knit a community together," said Torres.

Terre Haute
Overcast
44° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 38°
Feels Like: 42°
Robinson
Overcast
41° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 38°
Feels Like: 36°
Indianapolis
Overcast
43° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 39°
Rockville
Overcast
44° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 42°
Casey
Overcast
38° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 32°
Brazil
Overcast
44° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 38°
Feels Like: 42°
Marshall
Overcast
44° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 42°
Rainy & Cold
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 383687

Reported Deaths: 9792
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook1774655433
DuPage23099606
Lake20815511
Will18621427
Kane16903347
Winnebago10340180
St. Clair7993220
Madison7221154
McHenry6452121
Champaign617229
Unassigned4778270
Peoria462273
McLean420934
Rock Island407090
Sangamon406763
Kankakee342180
Macon316052
Kendall270430
Tazewell268756
LaSalle242663
DeKalb239942
Coles193539
Adams188820
Williamson188859
Boone187825
Clinton178926
Vermilion174110
Jackson154826
Whiteside146027
Knox131716
Randolph128315
Ogle12187
Effingham11834
Marion102819
Stephenson10187
Franklin9869
Grundy9777
Morgan93424
Monroe92530
Bureau91316
Jefferson90748
Henry8537
Christian82529
Macoupin81611
Union78725
McDonough77120
Lee7402
Shelby69112
Fayette68524
Douglas6849
Crawford6516
Livingston64610
Woodford63714
Montgomery61516
Logan5994
Saline5679
Fulton5271
Jo Daviess5127
Bond5079
Warren5068
Iroquois49519
Wayne48612
Jersey47521
Cass46311
Perry44716
Carroll41911
Moultrie4154
Johnson3620
Pike3586
Lawrence3368
Richland33516
Clay31413
Hancock3144
Clark31017
Washington3102
Mason3091
Greene29515
Cumberland2946
Mercer2706
White2704
De Witt2646
Jasper26410
Piatt2540
Pulaski2401
Wabash2285
Ford19814
Menard1861
Edgar15710
Marshall1573
Massac1552
Henderson1290
Hamilton1262
Alexander1241
Brown1110
Edwards1090
Gallatin1072
Scott1070
Putnam920
Schuyler901
Stark863
Calhoun660
Hardin540
Pope421
Out of IL50

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 164581

Reported Deaths: 4143
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion26055792
Lake14436358
St. Joseph9606168
Elkhart9271138
Allen8647231
Hamilton6400115
Vanderburgh617162
Tippecanoe396715
Porter347550
Hendricks3418134
Monroe335638
Johnson3286130
Delaware311575
Clark306263
Vigo275340
Madison250896
LaPorte239261
Cass229724
Warrick205065
Kosciusko201127
Floyd187468
Howard169466
Bartholomew147958
Marshall147428
Dubois146426
Wayne142031
Grant133539
Henry133030
Boone129150
Hancock124744
Noble122935
Jackson121018
Dearborn103128
Morgan100340
Lawrence96838
Gibson94412
Clinton92416
Daviess92334
Shelby90632
LaGrange82815
Knox81810
Harrison81024
Posey7767
Putnam77616
Fayette76719
DeKalb76011
Jasper6885
Miami6715
Steuben6608
Montgomery63122
White62316
Greene57838
Adams5607
Scott55413
Decatur52839
Ripley4838
Whitley4836
Clay4617
Sullivan45714
Wells45611
Huntington4455
Starke4438
Wabash4439
Orange42425
Spencer4176
Randolph39210
Jennings38713
Washington3873
Franklin38325
Fulton3785
Perry36914
Jefferson3655
Pike35718
Carroll34313
Jay3386
Fountain3293
Tipton28423
Vermillion2721
Parke2564
Rush2464
Blackford2394
Newton23711
Owen2151
Martin2050
Pulaski1783
Crawford1631
Brown1473
Ohio1337
Union1140
Benton1130
Switzerland980
Warren911
Unassigned0236